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The Jews of Cuba
Flying to Cuba this winter? Consider bringing along some necessary items that improve the living conditions of the small Jewish population there.

You may fly south for the winter and bring things to distribute to Cubans you meet, but did you know that there is a Jewish community in Cuba? It is one popular vacation destination that still maintains a tiny Jewish population. The majority came from Mediterranean countries, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The first Jewish immigrants arrived on that island centuries ago, originally fleeing persecution during the Spanish Inquisition.

At its peak, there were about 15,000 Jews and five synagogues in Havana alone.

The Sephardic Jews who arrived before World War 1 from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Palestine were escaping the declining Ottoman Empire.

As religious conflicts in Turkish-held territories intensified, the Jews began to modernize by adopting western customs, language and values. This prepared them for future emigration overseas, with the intent on settling in the free Americas. Some left for the United States first, but didn’t adapt well and turned to Cuba, influenced by economic opportunities and the ease of learning Spanish for speakers of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). 

By 1924, families ran away from the misery caused by political changes in the Balkan states. The collapse of sugar prices, concurring with the Great Depression, resulted in many Jewish Cubans suffering hunger and homelessness. With donations of sewing machines from American Jewish communities, they recovered economically by working as peddlers, shoemakers or tailors. The Sephardic Jews were mostly self-employed in commerce and industry, but the Ashkenazi Jews were factory workers who were forced to become independent due to a new labour law introduced in 1933.

Other Jewish families, this time from Eastern Europe, arrived before World War 2 as Cuba was the first country in the Americas to take in the refugees. At its peak, there were about 15,000 Jews and five synagogues in Havana alone. Yiddish newspapers were published and anti-Semitism was minimal.

A small group of Jewish businessmen from the United States set up shop at that time. Collaboration between Sephardim and Ashkenazim was inadequate due to language and cultural differences. Almost 90 percent left after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Today, only about 1,500 Cubans claim Jewish descent or affiliation.

Everything there is in short supply. If you are planning a vacation to this tropical land and want to help the Jewish community in need, the web site, The Jews of Cuba, lists necessary items that can greatly improve the living conditions of our fellow Jews. You can make a difference!

Brenda Rishea is a writer and editor based in Burlington, Ontario.

Originally published in Hamilton Jewish News, October 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009                                                                    C21OC09

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